Armin Van Buuren, Ancient Wood, and Ghengis Khan: This is not your father’s field research in Mongolia

We never expected this. Enkhbat had us hovering at warp speed along the Millennium Road in the northern shadows of the Khangai Mountains. Armin Van Buuren’s A State of Trance filling our rig. We were starting a new project to study the interaction between climate, fire, and forest history in the land of Chinggis Khaan and a silky voice was lifting us higher, “and if you only knew, just how much the Sun needs you, to help him light the sky, you’d be surprised. Do…do…do.do”. We were exhilarated. The Sun was shining. This was not exactly Chinggis’ steppe. But little did we know, we would eventually be chasing his ghost.

 

Image

Byarbaatar & Amy in front of Khorgo, unknowingly about to meet Chinggis’s ghost. Photo credit: Enkhbat.

After about a day’s travel we started passing the Khorgo lava field. Amy asked, “What’s that?” Neil had forgotten about this landmark despite having walked upon it 10 years prior. It is a ~30 km2 lava field with old trees on it. Gordon Jacoby, Nicole Davi, Baatarbileg Nachin, and others had sampled in the early aughts and put together a ca 700 yr long drought record from Siberian larch. Neil relayed this information to Amy and she said that we should sample on it knowing that a 2,000 yr long record in the American Southwest had been produced on a similar landscape feature. We had a tight schedule, but as we drove out to the western edge of the Khangai’s, sampled sites, witnessed a sheep in the dying throes of a brain worm infection, got snowed on, and then sweated in much warmer temperatures, we decided it was worth the time to see what was out there. Little did we know.

By the time we arrived to start sampling, Neil was getting sick (we learned days later that Neil was coming down with tonsillitis) and we were on fumes from some bone-challenging swings in the weather. Amy pushed on during the first day with Byarbaatar and Balginnyam. The found a pile of dead horse bones and couldn’t get the chainsaw running stopping them from acquiring samples from downed, dead trees. It felt almost hopeless.

We summoned our strength the next day and explored a new section of the lava field. Soon after getting out there we starting seeing Siberian pine, a tree Neil hadn’t seen on his first visit and hadn’t been sampled previously at this site. We decided that after our fire history collection we would sample some pine trees just to see what They might have to say.

 

Image

The Logo Tree: The Siberian pine that clued us into the possibility that there might be something extraordinary on the Khorgo lava field. Photo credit: Amy Hessl

As this collection wasn’t priority, these samples sat until late January of the following year. Here is the first email of the discovery (partially redacted for some sensitive language).

 

The sample “locked in and said the inner ring i measured was 1235…whoa! that was cool b/c i started a good bit from the pith…. i race back to me scope and measuring stage…..make mistakes. going too fast. fix the mistakes…..the PITH is 1142!!!!

 

yes, i can see the yr Chinggis was born. i can see the yr he died. i can see the yrs Mongolia rose to rule Asia!

 

this has been our Holy Chinggis during the entire Mongolian project.

 

this is totally hot censored.

 

neil

 

ps – i guess we are going back to Khorgo, huh?”

 

Image

KLP0010a – the first sample of Siberian pine from the 2010 Khorgo lava collection to break the 1200s. The pith is 1142 CE (Common Era). Photo credit: Neil Pederson

We secured funding and we went back to Khorgo in 2012 with a bigger crew and one goal in mind – collect more wood.

We cannot believe what we have found.

For centuries, common wisdom held that the Mongols were driven to conquest because of harsh conditions – drought. Our new record, dating back with confidence to 900 CE (Common Era), indicates the opposite. After the unification of the Mongols, Chinggis Khan, you know him as Ghengis Khan, led his army from Northern China in 1211 to the Caspian Sea in 1224 CE. Our new record in PNAS indicates that it was consistently wet from 1211-1225, a period we are calling the Mongol Pluvial (look for an open access version of this paper here or contact Amy or me). No years during this period were below the long-term average, which is a singular rare run of moisture conditions in our 1,100 year long record. Independent tree-ring records over extra tropical Asia also indicate that this period was warm.

On the cool semi-arid steppe of Central Asia, water is life and in those days, water was energy. The Mongol diet is heavily based on the meat of grazers. Their mode of transportation was the short, but Pheidippidic horse. So, for food and for travel, grass is life. Grass is energy. An abundance of moisture would seem to provide the horsepower for the rapidly growing Mongol Empire. The Mongol soldier had five steed at their disposal. With a large army, that quickly translates into a huge herd and a huge need for grass.

Our tree-ring record suggests that the grasslands of central Mongolia were likely productive. They strongly agree with satellite estimates of grassland productivity. Going back in time, then, the trees would suggest the Mongol Empire during its rapid expansion was sitting in a sea of grass, a sea of energy, a potential abundance of life.

That is our hypothesis, anyhow, and something we will test in the coming years with historical documents, environmental records from lake sediments, more tree rings, and ecological modeling experiments.

While this record speaks to a rapid transformation of Eurasian culture during the 13th century, it also speaks about an abrupt transformation in Mongol culture today. Towards the end of our tree-ring record we see a prolonged drought from the end of the 20th century into the beginning of the 21st century. This drought followed the wettest century of the last 11 and occurred during the warmest period of the last 1,100 years in Asia. The abrupt transition in the environmental conditions, a transition that saw hundreds of lakes and wetlands disappear from the landscape, occurs during the transition from a more agriculturally-based economy to a more urban-based economy. These severe conditions, in combination with some harsh winters, killed millions of livestock and are thought to be one trigger of a mass migration of Mongols from the countryside into the capital of Ulaanbaatar.

 

Image

Ulaanbaatar in 2006. The homes on the far hills likely reflect climatic and economic refugees moving from the countryside into the city. Photo credit: N. Pederson

Though we cannot connect this heat drought to climate change (though maybe we kind of can), warming temperatures have stacked the deck towards higher evaporative demand, so even if the amount of precipitation remains the same, high temperatures will generate a more intense drought.  That’s what we observed in the early 21st century and based on past moisture variation in Mongolia and future predictions of warming, we would expect to see similar events in the future.

From Armin Van Buuren to Chinggis Khaan to Armin Van Buuren again. We had no clue of how Summer 2010 would light the sky.*

 

_____________

 

* this post was requested by a media outlet so they could have the ‘author’s voice’ on this discovery. That version was ultimately sanitized for your protection. Here it is unadultered.

 

 

A Dream Becomes Reality

It has been a while since we last updated this blog. The reasons are many. The primary reason for the delay is that we have had singular focus in launching our next project, a project that for many is a dream come true.

Before we launch into that and officially start the 2013 field season, let’s do a quick recap of our team’s efforts since last August.

Our academic year started with a bang: our new research project, which was an unexpected off shoot of our efforts to study climate, fire, and forest ecology, was funded by the National Science Foundation in September 2012.

Since then, our team has spent much time presenting prior results, new preliminary results and processing samples. Many, many samples.

Acres and acres of treats: xylemite that might as well be gold. Photo: N. Pederson

Acres and acres of treats: xylemite that might as well be gold. Photo: N. Pederson

Continue reading

The Meaning of Water

In Mongolia, water is energy. Photo: A. Hessl

What is the meaning of water? In my everyday life, water is a given.  Even this year, when at least one quarter of the US has been stricken by drought, water continues to flow from the tap and my family is unaffected by its scarcity.  I remember the California droughts of the 1970s, when my brother and I shared bathwater, I learned not to flush so much, and water was rationed.  Even still, our very sustenance, our wealth was not threatened by the lack of water.  In Mongolia, as in many other developing countries, people depend on water not just to slake their thirst but to sustain their livelihoods.  Mongolian herders must bring their animals to a water body daily.  In times of drought, most lakes dry up, leaving only a few “permanent” lakes available to dozens of herders and thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of animals.  Steppe lakes also serve as virtual “gas stations” for migratory birds and waterfowl – they are hotspots of diversity. Without water, animals perish, food disappears, and people and ecosystems suffer.  In a semi-arid region like the steppe, water allows people and ecosystems to transform solar energy into a mobile and flexible product via photosynthesis and primary consumption by livestock. In Mongolia, water is energy.

Continue reading

Oceans of Ancient Wood and Coming Full Circle

We have just made it back to Ulaanbaatar after 11 days of in-country travel and field work. While being a bit field worn from working on a lava field for 6 days, we are simultaneously thrilled and in good spirits. It is a bit too early to say, but it seems that Summer 2012 in Mongolia was a success*. It certainly felt like a success to me on the day we came full circle from 2010.

Amy, John, and Sanaa were a day ahead of us and, with John being down with a case of Chinggis’ revenge, Amy and Sanaa spent a full day on the lava field revisiting and re-visioning how we would sample over the following week. The hopeful goal was to collect enough wood to push the chronology near 2000 years in length while having enough samples over the last 1000 years to be able to say something with statistical significance. Sanaa and Amy intensely studied where to find wood and what pieces might be from an earlier era. They accomplished this while collecting 24 cross-sections of deadwood. It was an impressive and hugely helpful first day.

It was necessary to study the characteristics of the deadwood and its geographic distribution across the lava field because, honestly, our first discovery is pretty much the definition of, “a blind hog will find an acorn every once in a while“. During Amy’s and Sanaa’s first day of discovery in 2012, Sanaa came up with the term ‘ocean’ for the large, open areas of lava that are virtually devoid of trees. Because the ocean as a whole can be considered a kind of desert, we found that term ‘ocean’ was correct: this part of the lava field truly resembled a desert. Thus, over the course of our fieldwork, the first verse and drifting characteristics of A Horse with No Name came to mind. The heat was hot. There were plants and birds and rocks and things. Oh yeah, there were a few rocks.

A 360 pan of a large ‘ocean’ of lava. Can you spot Amy and Kevin? Photo: N. Pederson

Together we learned that it was on the margins of these oceans that we could find what appeared to be ancient wood. It wasn’t until the penultimate day, however, that we had any sense of what we had accomplished.

Continue reading

What Would Chinggis Do?

Saturday dawned a beautiful morning the air was crisp and cool, all of Mongolia had just gotten up at 4 in the morning to watch the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics, and traffic was light.  It seemed an auspicious beginning for our 2012 field work.  The opening ceremonies for our fieldwork had never run so smoothly: Baatar had arranged for our favorite driver, Chukha, to meet us at our hotel at 9am to get an early start.  It would be a solid 6-8 hour drive to the first lake we wished to sample Oygi Nuur, 9am did not seem too early. Drs. Baatar and Sanaa plus an undergraduate student, Balja, packed Chukha’s Russian military van at an astounding 7am (does Chukha really get up that early?) allowing us to leave Ulaanbaatar less than 36 hours after we arrived.  It was truly unprecedented.

Chinggis seated at the front of the Mongolian Parliament. Photo: N. Pederson

Continue reading

Chasing Ghengis Khan

People have been looking for 800 years. Looking for Chinggis Khaan, né Ghengis Khan. From the people searching for his birthplace to the people searching for his last resting place. After more than 800 years since his rise from the mountains of Mongolia, Chinggis lives on as a charismatic and almost mythical person. He seemingly rose from obscurity, quelled feuds between tribes, and created the largest land empire in world history. If you read beyond what you likely learned in high school or college, you will see his leadership skills were progressive and exceptional. You will learn that Chinggis has an influence on our world nearly 800 years after his death. From paper money to the pony express, from war strategy to the structure of the human genome, his life has touched generations of humans over the centuries.

The new Chinggis Khaan statue, Photo: U. Aria

When you begin working in Mongolia it is absolutely essential that you learn the importance of the man. Soviet communism attempted to quell his spirit and his importance in Mongolian culture. Mongolians were not allowed last names so everyone could be equal, so no one could trace their family history to the royal family. This, of course, did not work. In a culture that has songs and stories dating back centuries, if you, a native Mongolian, meet a stranger in the woods on the other side of the country and drink tea, break bread, and just lounge, you will soon break into a song that you and the stranger know from the depth of your soul. You will sing, smile, and enjoy a wonderful afternoon with this once distant, now close cousin. That kind of cultural bind does not break under any kind of political pressure. Perhaps it only made it stronger? See, in the late-1990s, soon after the fall of communism, Chinggis essentially rose from the ashes. He was everywhere in Mongolia – TV commercials for cell phones or a brand of vodka. And once you, as an outsider, spend considerable time in Mongolia, especially during Naadam and especially in the open Gobi steppe with people who still live as their ancestors did centuries ago, you understand the importance of the man and you will also begin to chase Chinggis. And, it is with this new project that our group of geographers, paleoclimatologists, ecologists, historians, and ecosystem modelers begin our pursuit of Chinggis Khaan.

Continue reading

Transitions: Climate, Fire, and Forests in Mongolia

The silence you may have heard since our last post was the sound of microscope lights flickering, measuring stages gliding, brains grinding, numbers crunching, and poi dogs pondering. We wrapped up all planned field work last summer for our research grant on climate, fire, and forest history in Mongolia. We have transitioned from the field-intensive portion of the grant to the data and publication phase of the scientific process. We have presented research in various meetings and settings and have earnestly begun to put our findings to our peers to begin the publication process. We are also transitioning to a new vein of research in Mongolia that gets to the title of this blog. It has been a long time coming.

Continue reading